Broadcasting Special 2: S4C should address the communication needs of the nation as a whole

Hugh Mackay says Welsh public service broadcasters should collaborate more

Hugh Mackay is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University in Wales. This article is based on a presentation he delivered at the Cyfrwng media conference in Cardiff earlier this month.

With the development of the National Assembly as a fully-fledged legislature, communication and voice are needed in Wales as never before. The new democratic system needs to engage citizens of Wales in policy-making and the political process. Yet the pressures on our media are working in the opposite direction. Today in Wales we have:

  • Declining newspaper circulations.
  • Fewer journalists gathering news, checking facts, verifying sources and providing balanced and authoritative reporting.
  • Drastically reduced programming budgets and a reduction in broadcast hours at S4C, BBC Wales and (especially) ITV Wales.

Tomorrow

Is it a channel we want but don’t watch?

Iestyn Garlick says S4C’s financial and editorial independence is essential if it is to have a future. And on Monday John Osmond reviews the shortlist for the Welsh channel’s top job

It’s extraordinary that at the very moment Wales is developing a stronger set of national institutions than ever before in its history – the latest addition being National Theatre Wales – broadcasting is in decline.

This paradox is not confined to news and current affairs. About 85 per cent of BBC Wales and ITV Wales’ production is news, current affairs and sport, which only leaves 15 per cent for drama, music, arts, light entertainment, comedy, or children’s programming.

It is particularly important that S4C has focused so much on children’s’ programming. From coverage of the Eisteddfod to Wedi Tri and Saith, the channel has performed actively as a public service broadcaster and has sponsored and cultivated not just the Welsh language but a breadth of cultural activities. Yet the shape and size of S4C has to be seen in the context of not just drastic reductions in public expenditure but the transforming public service broadcasting landscape in the UK as a whole. There are two major challenges:

  1. The fragmentation of audiences that comes with multi-channel broadcasting. In an era of almost limitless digital information and entertainment, we can pursue our own interests as never before. However, that means we have fewer possibilities for coming together as a nation.
  2. The internet with its new sources of information and entertainment, social media and interactivity. Apart from offering greater choice and fragmenting audiences, digital media fundamentally transform the user experience. They present an opportunity to produce and circulate one’s own material, at a low cost, instantly and globally and also offers interactivity. As we have seen with the Arab Spring uprisings, camera phones, camcorders, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, are sometimes replacing and certainly complement professional journalism, and also challenge the authority of broadcasting organisations.

In this context, what is the future for Welsh public service broadcasting organisations, and in particular S4C? A first response should be to emphasise the advantages of collaboration, co-operation and partnerships between Welsh broadcasters. Television is expensive and doesn’t work well with small audiences or populations. We need to find ways for Welsh broadcasters to facilitate the expression of a diversity of voices. Plurality (the number of broadcasting organisations) is not necessary to achieve diversity – as long as the organisational ethos and professional practices are committed to diversity (as they are with our public service broadcasters).

Meanwhile, there is a blurring in the distinction between Welsh-speaking households and those where Welsh is not spoken. With the growth in Welsh-medium schools and employment opportunities where Welsh is a desirable qualification, the focus of language policies is shifting away from the rural heartland. The language and its culture are becoming more modern and cosmopolitan.

It is worth considering how far S4C has responded to this transformation. Some argue that it has failed to react to these changing circumstances and its focus has become increasingly narrow. Mario Basini is among the cultural commentators who have argued that a division between the languages is unhealthy for both groups and for the nation as a whole. He argues that a channel that gives greater attention to the bilingualism of Wales would promote mutual acceptance of the nation’s two linguistic traditions.

None of these issues can be divorced from the governance of S4C where in the past few years we have witnessed a failure of accountability. At the least there is a need to reform S4C’s management structures to make them more representative and accountable. We need reform of the unelected, unaccountable and unrepresentative quangos that are responsible for broadcasting in Wales. The present accountability of S4C to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, which seems to have little interest and to be unhappy to intervene, is anachronistic and unhelpful. It is obvious that the Welsh Government should be more involved with S4C. There are strong arguments, too, that the BBC and BBC Trust should be organised on more federal or at least more devolved lines.

As the 2006 Beecham Review argued, the National Assembly has a responsibility to scrutinise all areas of policy and public spending which are important to the citizens of Wales. In his review of the creative industries Ian Hargreaves suggested that S4C’s Chief Executive should make an annual appearance before the Assembly’s committee responsible for culture and should also meet at least twice a year with the Welsh Government’s Creative Industries Board. Since these recommendations were made events have moved on. Now is the right time for more control of S4C to be given to the Welsh Government.

In recent years a wide range of commentators have called for a Wales Media Commission to manage contestability in the funding of public broadcasting. In October 2008 the Welsh Government’s Broadcasting Advisory Group, chaired by Huw Jones (now Chairman of S4C) produced a report that became the Government’s submission to Ofcom’s second Public Service Broadcasting Review. This advocated establishing a Welsh Media Commission which would ‘allocate funding for the creation and delivery of media content’ to support a new English language channel. Ofcom’s Welsh Advisory Council supported something similar, as a way of channelling funds into English language programmes for Wales.

The IWA went further, advocating that such a body should operate on a bilingual and multi-media basis, allowing for contestable funding across the whole range of media activity outside the BBC and subsuming the S4C Authority. In a similar vein John Geraint of Green Bay Media has suggested an Independent Television Production Fund on the Canadian model that would be administered by Finance Wales. Programmes it funded could be carried by the ITV network or other digital platforms, and involve either traditional linear TV or an on-demand service.

In the main S4C has fulfilled its role extraordinarily successfully since it was founded in the 1982. Any future arrangements need to ensure that its contribution to Welsh culture, and especially its support for the language, continues as fully as possible. However, one can envisage different forms of accountability and management arrangements – which could be bilingual and undertaken across multiple channels and platforms. The future needs to involve greater  co-operation between broadcasters in Wales.

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